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Postmodern Philosophy and the Scientific Turn

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What can come of a scientific engagement with postmodern philosophy? Some scientists have claimed that the social sciences and humanities have nothing to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Dorothea E. Olkowski shows that the historic link between science and philosophy, mathematics itself, plays a fundamental role in the development of the worldviews that drive both fields. Focusing on language, its expression of worldview and usage, she develops a phenomenological account of human thought and action to explicate the role of philosophy in the sciences. Olkowski proposes a model of phenomenology, both scientific and philosophical, that helps make sense of reality and composes an ethics for dealing with unpredictability in our world.

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6 Chapters

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1. Nature Calls: Scientific Worldviews and the Sokal Hoax

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The controversial, sham essay, written by the physicist Alan Sokal and published in 1996, possibly to its great mortification, by the cultural studies journal Social Text, begins with a statement that is no hoax but that rings true for many, if not most, researchers in the natural sciences.1 The statement is that “there are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research.”2 This view is affirmed by Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, in comments appearing in The New York Review of Books. Admitting that he found the news of Sokal’s hoax amusing (a view shared by other physicists who have spoken or written about these events), Weinberg goes on to confirm Sokal’s position. “Those who seek extrascientific messages in what they think they understand about modern physics are digging dry wells. I think that, with two large exceptions, the results of research in physics (as opposed, say, to psychology) have no legitimate implications whatever for culture or politics or philosophy.”3 Weinberg adds that until “we” learn the origins of the universe or the final laws of nature, philosophers and cultural theorists might avoid making statements about what they think “they” understand. Apparently, “we” is a set that does not include either of the latter two groups.

 

2. The Natural Contract and the Archimedean Worldview

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In The Natural Contract, Michel Serres makes a case for the juridical nature of knowledge in the natural sciences. “The sciences proceed by contracts. Scientific certainty and truth depend, in fact, as much on such judgments as such judgments do on them.”1 How does this occur? The claim is that science engages in a dialectics or dialogue that results in a contract between scientists and the world of things, a synthesis of human verdicts and the realm of objects.2 This arises, according to Serres, from a fundamental situation in which two subjects find themselves in violent contradiction with one another yet bound by a legal contract that affirms that their war is a legal state in the theater of war that defines nature. The social contract guarantees that the combatants share a common language, that of the contract, and oppose a common enemy, which is anything, any noise, that would jam or shut down their voices.3 Through the centuries, the violence of the combatants escalates, as the means for destroying one another becomes technologically more sophisticated and more devastating. But each time the combatants contradict one another, their confrontation results in a new synthesis, an objective state of violence.

 

3. Semi-Free: Thermodynamics, Probability, and the New Worldview

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What might be surprising about modern science, what might go against our expectations, at least if we follow Arendt’s account, is that it already revealed the human capacity to “think in terms of the universe while remaining on the earth … to use cosmic laws as guiding principles for terrestrial action.”1 The view that the sun is the center of our solar system, for example, requires the idea that the universe is not a small, cozy place, that the stars are too far away to manifest any parallax (the apparent shift in the position of objects due to the observer’s motion), and even the possibility that the universe is infinite, that it has no center and no periphery, so there is no motion either toward or away from the center of the universe. It requires the ability to imagine that humans are not the center of creation but just specks of dust in a universe of empty space.2

So, perhaps, although alienation from enduring, worldly things in favor of what can be produced and immediately consumed may describe the socioeconomic development of modern society, earthly alienation, the view of nature from a point in the universe beyond the earth, might in the end be the more persuasive and pervasive structure. At the same time, if the same sort of mathematical structures allow human beings to understand both heavenly and terrestrial bodies, if the ideas of philosophers only gained acceptance when validated by the factual consequences of repeatable experiments carried out in the newly developing natural sciences, then what is meant by “naturalism” might well be a function of the “demonstrable and ever-quickening increase in human knowledge and power, which in turn arose as earth alienation and the instruments developed to measure it which ushered in the modern age so as to create the very idea of science.”3

 

4. Burning Man: The Influence of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics and the Science of Flow

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We saw in the previous chapter that for Stengers and Prigogine, questions about the relationship of philosophy to science are closely associated with their understanding of processes that, they claim, no longer appear to be explicable in terms of time or process reversibility. Concepts associated with irreversible processes can, they hope, bridge the divide between spiritual and physical aspects of nature, including human nature. Moving from the study of heat to the conservation of energy, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, linear and nonlinear thermodynamics, self-organization, chaos, dissipative structures, evolution, complexity, open systems, relativity, uncertainty, and finally to temporal evolution in quantum systems leads them to the conclusion that the reversibility of classical dynamics is a characteristic of closed or isolated dynamic systems only, and that science must at least remain open to a pluralistic world in which reversible and irreversible processes coexist.1 For classical dynamics, time was a geometric parameter, and as such this conception was part of a general drive to eliminate temporal evolution, to reduce the different and the changing to the identical and permanent. The proposal that Stengers and Prigogine put forth is that in place of general, all-embracing schemes that could be expressed by eternal laws, there is time. In place of symmetry, there are symmetry-breaking processes on all levels. Moreover, they claim, time irreversibility can be the unifying source of order on all levels. Among philosophers who engaged with the sciences, can we not find philosophical precedents for these ideas?

 

5. Philosophy’s Extra-Scientific Messages

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We began chapter 1 with the admonition of physicist Steven Weinberg that those philosophers who seek extra-scientific messages in what they “think” they understand about modern physics are making a grave error. And yet we also saw that philosophers, historians, and social scientists have linked changes in natural scientific methods and theories to changes in worldview, a system of intertwined, interrelated, interconnected beliefs. Recent events have brought conflicting positions regarding worldviews to the fore once again. The Large Hadron Collider, situated outside of Geneva, Switzerland, and funded by an international consortium of nations, was constructed to aid scientists in verifying the existence of the Higgs boson and other subatomic particles. Ultimately, the point is to explain the origin of mass and the origin of the universe itself. Scientists engaged in this experiment suffered an unexpected setback when an electrical short caused extensive damage to the accelerator and revealed problems with the experiment itself.1 The accelerator was constructed over fifteen years at a cost of approximately $9 billion. Weinberg acknowledges the unhappiness this event produced among teams of scientists, but takes it only as a delay and not as a failure, unlike an earlier project of his, the Superconducting Super Collider that was supposed to have been built in Texas but was abandoned due to excessive costs.

 

6. Love’s Ontology: Ethics Beyond the Limits of Classical Science

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If we are willing to throw out space, we can keep time and the trade is worth it.

—Fotini Markopoulou

We concluded the previous chapter with a discussion of dynamical systems theory and made the claim that this is the structure exemplified by the Sartrean concept of being and nothingness. Let us continue this discussion by reference to the logical presuppositions of this same Sartrean concept. Being and nothingness rests on the law of noncontradiction, which claims that for any proposition, that proposition and its negation are never both true, only one may be true. It also seems to require the law of the excluded middle, namely, that for a given proposition and its negation, at least one must be true and they cannot both be true. This means, of course, that for Sartre, Being cannot be both some x and its negation, only one can be true and at least some position x is true until superseded by its negation. By negating the being that we have been, we declare the past to be false and the present to be true.

 

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